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The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley

The Water-Babies (original 1863; edition 1862)

by Charles Kingsley

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1,686294,238 (3.38)117
Title:The Water-Babies
Authors:Charles Kingsley
Info:The Readers Library
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, children's, Victorian, fairy tale, satire

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The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (1863)


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This children's classic reflects the culture of the time in which it was written. The writing describes the fanciful journey of an abused chimney sweep who finds refuge with the fairies. Many quote worthy passages mixed with some racial stereotyping make for an interesting read. ( )
  jnmwheels | Apr 3, 2016 |
Young Tom is an orphan in mid-nineteenth century London who is apprenticed to a chimney sweep who treats him harshly. While cleaning the chimneys in a large manor house, Tom gets lost in the maze of chimneys and lets himself down into the wrong room where he is mistaken for a thief. He is chased for miles across the countryside before coming to a stream where he decides to clean himself. The fairies in the stream turn him into a water baby, and he forgets his past life. He spends years playing in the stream and the ocean with other water babies before setting out on a journey in which he will learn enough to become a man. Kingsley uses the novel as a commentary on several social issues of his day, including Darwinism and religion.

Although this was seen as a children’s book when it was published, there is a lot under the surface of it for adults. I enjoyed the playful tone of the narrator and the social commentary. The last chapter threw me off, however. It went off in a really weird direction, and I had a hard time following it. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
Part of the school curriculum. Can't remember that much about it apart from thinking it was all a bit weird ( )
  sashinka | Jan 14, 2016 |
The protagonist of this book is Tom, a naughty young boy who works under a cruel master as a chimney sweep. One day he gets himself into trouble, runs away and falls into a river where he is transformed into a "water-baby", able to live among the fishes. Tom is anxious to meet other water babies, but first he has to learn to be nice and well-behaved. He meets a lot of underwater animals- otters, lobster, different kinds of fishes- and fairies. Through his interactions in the underwater world, Tom slowly learns his moral lessons, eventually going off to save his old master from punishment for wrongdoings, and making his way back to land. My main enjoyment of the story is in the unfolding of Tom's character- he's quite a cheeky boy, curious and unafraid to ask questions of anyone (although the answers often puzzle him at first). His transformation out of ignorance and selfishness is nicely done. I also like reading about all the different creatures Tom encounters- their personification mostly reflects the natural behavior of said animals, and it's not many books you come across that feature talking salmon, lobsters and dragonflies. A delightful book, but one that I think should be read with the outlook of its time well in mind.

Because The Water Babies is a didatic tale, heavily reflecting the Victorian ideas of its time. It is full of stiff moral lessons, crammed with Christian perceptions of guilt and redemption, and spouts off a lot of prejudiced criticisms of different groups of people- including Jews, Catholics, Americans and the Irish (these parts have often been removed from later editions). I am not sure if I have ever read an unabridged version. And although it is usually classed as a children's book, I don't know if I'd feel comfortable reading it to my daughter without verbally editing lots of those heavily opinionated passages. It's very interesting to read the wiki article about this book, which tells me that among other things, Kingsley wrote it as a piece of satire. Moralism and satire aside, it's a tender and curious story, full of interesting characters and lively adventures.

from the Dogear Diary ( )
  jeane | Jul 11, 2015 |
This was not for me. Yes, I understand the importance of the book at time, how it was a satire on Darwin’s classic and the fact that it predates Alice in Wonderland did impress me when I compared their publication dates. But it just got on my nerves after about chapter three and from then on right until the end where, confronted with the most ridiculous last line in the history of literature, my patience gave way entirely.

So what irritated me? Well, the awful patronising tone of Kingsley the narrator who writes as if everyone is a) male and b) white Caucasian and c) wealthy, educated, clean and morally superior. It’s patronising and prejudiced in the extreme and pulls no punches in its portrayal of the Scots, the Irish, the Jews, etc.

There’s this kid Tom who ends up going up one chimney and coming down the wrong one in some massive house which just happens to border some land which contains a stream where, for fear of his life, he flees and, somehow, becomes a Water Baby, some kind of waterbound fairy.

He then undertakes, for reasons not apprent to me, some epic quest to get to the Back End of Somewhere or the Bottom Side of Everywhere or somesuch meaningless location. Along the way, he meets a range of fantastic beings who are loosely based on magical interpretations of real life beings. Most are as patronisingly moralising as Kingsley himself so there’s really no let up. The story’s really not that interesting actually. You certainly don’t really care what happens to Tom. If he’d been eaten by a pike, I don’t think I would have noticed actually.

Of course, he achieves his aim, but this is by means of passing some kind of moral litmus test of doing something right even though it’s not something he wants to do. The implication is that our highest moral deeds are those which are done in the face of extreme distaste.

That’s a great shame for people like Mother Theresa whose entire life’s work count for nothing because they actually love people and want to help them. Bummer. Yep, next time I actually want to inconvenience myself for the sake of others, I’ll think twice before doing so and wait until I really, really, deep, deep down in my heart don’t want to at all. Then it will count.

But, count for what exactly? For nothing at all of course. Kingsley seems to have believed that you attain some kind of moral status by piling up good actions one after another (all without wanting to of course). What a sad fallacy for such an intelligent man to propound. No matter what we do in this life, we’re all so far short of moral perfection that we all pretty much look the same from the viewpoint of moral purity.

Anyway, all loose ends are neatly tied up and put to bed with a kiss and a warm glass of milk. Then, after having said repeatedly every other paragraph that just because someone says something is not true, that doesn’t mean it isn’t, the epilogue tells you not to bother believing a word of anything you’ve just read even if it is true. Great. Thanks.

Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are so, so much better at giving us a satirical insight into ourselves and our lives than The Water Babies there’s hardly any comparison between them. Lewis Carrol was a genius who took Kingsley’s timebound witterings and made them into a timeless literary classic which both children and adults will treasure for hundreds of years to come, long after the last person has read that pointless last line of The Water Babies for the last time in human history. ( )
  arukiyomi | Apr 17, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (53 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Charles Kingsleyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Attwell, Mabel LucieIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Beards, Richard D.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goble, WarwickIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Italiander, MikeIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnstone, Anne GrahameIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirk, Maria L.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
MacDonald, RobertaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mozley, CharlesIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Robinson, W. HeathIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sambourne, LinleyIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tarrant, Margaret W.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vihervaara, LyyliTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wall Perné, Gust van deIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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First words
Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom.
No one has a right to say that no water-babies exist, till they have seen no water-babies existing.
And whither she went, thither she came.
It's so beautiful, it must be true!
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
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References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
Available online at The Hathi Trust:

Also available at The Internet Archive:

Also available at Project Gutenberg:
Haiku summary
Life after death? Yes!
Climbing-boy now wet infant,
somehow born-again.

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486450007, Paperback)

A young chimney sweep enters a magical waterworld where he meets creatures that teach him the difference between right and wrong. Delightful characters such as Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby will enchant today's young readers just as they did well over a century ago. A lavish edition of a children's classic. 32 illustrations.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:22 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

The adventures of Tom, a sooty little chimney sweep with a great longing to be clean, who is stolen by fairies and turned into a water baby.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 10 descriptions

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6 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140367365, 0143105094

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